Five or Six Bells, and what I did this summer and why beauty is not merely truth, but happiness, too

Published : Monday, January 10, 2011 | Label:

My poem “Fog Lies” appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Five Bells, and I’m glad to see it there. I guess the bell has tolled for the last time for that journal, too (see my note on Indigo): one outcome, slightly regrettable, of the merger of the Poets Union and the Australian Poetry Centre is that we lose a poetry journal. Australian Poetry will publish a new journal, but Five Bells will no longer ring, and will no longer bark.

I was in Taipei in mid-December talking Basho at a conference of ecopoetics. I met some fine scholars and poets and made some fine new friends there, from India, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, the UK, Canada and the States. It is heartening to see that writers and scholars from everywhere are trying to work out how to save us all from ourselves, in part by poetry, as we sink deeper into ecological trouble. We must go on bravely and with tender hearts, said more than one of us, even though we feel certain nothing much will save us. It was a joy to meet my friend Scott Slovic again, and to spend time with Debbie Bird Rose and Peter Boyle—good friends, tender hearts, sharp minds, and colleagues in Kangaloon, this fellowship of concerned scholars and artists, Debbie formed in 2009.

Between Christmas and 4 January I was at my desk finishing “The Weather” Field Notes from Heaven”, my essay to accompany photographs from the National Library of Australia in a book that will come out late in 2011. I managed to spin out three new poems, too, that will see the light this year. I got to the beach at Huskisson a couple of times with Maree and the little ones, and I’ve taken up walking and running again, to get myself back in my body. But those activities remind my how much I also need to get a yoga practice going: at forty-nine, I am no longer as supple as rumour has it I once was. At nights I’ve worked my way through the episodes of Owen Sheer’s A Poet’s Guide to Britain, a Christmas present to myself. Have a look at it if you haven’t seen it: apart from leading me to poets I should have met ages back (Louis MacNeice and George Mackay Brown), the series explores unfamiliar work by familiar poets (Wordsworth and Plath, for example), and elegantly explicates the connection in so many fine poets’ work between landscape, love , language and self.

i’ve also done a little reading: Michael Cunningham’s new novel By Nightfall, which seemed hastily written, though I think that was partly affect, but which also, like the best literature, had me taking notes in my journal and asking myself questions about my life. Prompted by 501 Must-Read Books which I got for Christmas, I reread the first of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Justine. I always want these books to be just a little more real and a little less—is “self-indulgent” too harsh?—than they seem, and so Justine seemed again. But stunning of sex and love and landscape. I also got hold of the Popular Penguins edition of Ginsberg’s Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, and burned my illusions away all over again in his lyrical, Whitman on speed journey through hell. And then to heaven: Maree gave me a beautiful book I’d been desiring in the bookshop, Tibetan Pilgrimage, by archaeologist and lover of Tibet, Michel Peissel. The book marries a hundred or more of Peissel’s charming watercolours, mostly of Tibetan temples and vernacular architecture, with a nice, if not especially profound, summary of Tibetan life, belief and ways of building. “Tibet is a relatively poor country,” he writes, “but Tibetans take great care to make things beautiful. They braid their ponies’ tails and decorate their houses, asking, ‘Who would want an unhappy pony or home?’”

Before too much more of this wet summer passes, I have to write a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald on three big picture books: one on eucalypts, one on gardens in the Blue Mountains, and a third on remarkable trees. It’s a chance to dwell again on plants and places, and on the play of wildness and order, freedom and constraint, in the ways we see, and see ourselves in, landscape, and what that says about our sense of our selves and our relations with the more than merely human world.

When I get that done, I’m off to Bali. I fell in love with Ubud at the festival last October, and my friend John O’Sullivan has invited me back there, with Maree this time, to stay with him and in one or two of the hotels (The Four Seasons) he runs on the island of the gods.

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